Pandemic could impact accurate weather predictions and hamper ability to detect hurricanes, say experts

Commercial airlines measure weather conditions. Thanks to the pandemic, their numbers have gone down by an average of 75 to 80%, according to the World Meteorological Organization


                            Pandemic could impact accurate weather predictions and hamper ability to detect hurricanes, say experts
(Getty Images)

The pandemic has forced the world to hit pause on commercial airlines, indirectly affecting weather predictions. This spells bad news as the hurricane season is just around the corner and the US and other at-risk countries are staring at the possibility of making inaccurate forecasts.

Commercial airlines measure weather conditions. But thanks to the pandemic, their numbers have gone down by an average of 75 to 80%, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

"You may think, why would we care about this, we have bigger things to worry about right now…But even in this situation, there could be situations where all of a sudden you could be critically reliant on weather forecasting if a hurricane, tornado, or some other adverse weather situation breaks out," Lars Peter Riishojgaard, Director of WMO’s Earth System Branch, said in a statement.

Without reliable weather data, the Covid-19 pandemic poses an additional challenge and may worsen risks, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. "Therefore it is essential that governments pay attention to their national early warning and weather observing capacities," he added.

Additionally, the decrease in weather data could also impact things like predicting when fog is going to break, William R Moninger, a retired NOAA physicist, told The New York Times.

Monitoring stations tasks commercial airlines with collecting data. The sensor fixed to the aircraft gathers information on air temperature, wind, and humidity and sends it to the stations in real-time. These organizations analyze the data to make predictions.

Before the Covid-19 era, commercial airlines took around 700,000 daily readings. Now, these measurements have dropped by 90% in some regions. In Europe, the situation is far worse. Air traffic readings are down by 85 to 90%, according to WMO. Affected countries are trying to work their way around the problem.

Commercial airlines gather information on air temperature, wind, and humidity and send it to the stations in real-time (Getty Images)

US seems better equipped now

Currently, the situation in the US is not too bad. Since the pandemic took off, commercial airline traffic data is down by 60%, the WMO said.

The adverse impact may be relatively modest. "However, as the decrease in the availability of aircraft weather observations continues and expands, we may expect a gradual decrease in the reliability of the forecasts," Riishojgaard explained.

Despite low air traffic, the US is capable of making predictions by gathering data from other sources, including satellites, radar, and land- and sea-based instruments, Christopher Vaccaro, an NOAA spokesman, told The New York Times.

US experts also deploy another instrument: radiosonde. Every day, these small instruments are launched into the upper atmosphere to provide data.But Moninger pointed out that radiosonde pales in comparison with airline data.

The US launches fewer than 200 radiosondes each day. Observations from aircraft have been far more abundant, he explained. Unlike in the US, many developing countries gather data manually.

"WMO has seen a significant decrease in the availability of this type of manual observations taken every few hours and reported to national centers over the last two weeks," Mr Riishojgaard said. "WMO will continue to monitor the situation, and the organization is working with its Members to mitigate the impact as much as possible."

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